Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Highest Mountain in a Small Country

My Opa was a mountain climber. My father is a mountain climber. But, despite the fact I'm just bursting at the seams to be one, I am definitively not a mountain climber. When I was younger my (estranged) father, who is a veritable encyclopedia of pseudo-science, told me that people's constitutions are either best suited to thin, dry mountain air or salty, thick ocean blasts. I am of the latter kind of people. I love mountains, so much, and many of my most treasured memories involve them, but my ability to climb them is hampered by my weak lungs, low fitness levels and lack of motivational drive.

Suffice to say, there are not many countries where I could say I have climbed the highest mountain or where such a thing would be physically possible/ wise for me; in my native New Zealand it would result in certain death. I could give Holland a go, or Western Samoa. Or: Timor-Leste.

My friend Eoin (pronounced: EEE OH IN), from Ireland by way of Hanoi, flew to Timor-Leste on the eve of my 30th birthday thus rescuing me from the utter worst of birthday horrors. I had decided to celebrate both his arrival and my descent into adulthood we would take a road trip to climb Mount Ramelau - the highest mountain of Timor-Leste, reaching to 2,986m at it's peak. During those rollicking colonial days it was also considered the highest mountain in Portugal. So, really, two birds, one stone type deal.

Being natural born idiots we left Dili far too late in the day and took our sweet time on the windy road. My flatmate and secretary-general on all things Timor told us we should bring some extra fuel, you know, in case. I made a face, since I don't enjoy taking part in such elaborate, fore-thinking activities, but I did pass on his good advice to Eoin, thinking he is probably a bit smarter than me in this regard. Eoin made the same face as me.

Motor-biking as far as the historic town of Maubisse was mostly scenic views and pretty good roads. We stopped at the Maubisse Pousada (pictured above, twice) and had high tea and a good meal overlooking the manicured gardens and surrounded by a ring of mountain tops. Despite the already late hour in the day, we decided to keep going and the manager of the pousada looked at us with a skeptical, but resigned, face. We did only one smart thing, which was to call ahead (this is out of character and I felt hopelessly grown-up).

From Maubisse the road rapidly deteriorates. After the turn off to the the village Hatubuiliko, it is not a 'road' in the sense that I have some to know the word, but rather a track made of large, bumpy stones. At the beginning of this 18km ordeal, the sun was beginning to set. Given our average speed, on the stones, of 5-10km/ hour, we both knew (but had the good sense and common decency not to voice) that we were in for a long, murderous evening.

About 7km in, by which time it was completely dark, I stopped for a moment, panting from wrangling my mechanical beast, my hands jangled from the bumps and coldness setting in. I hadn't mentioned any of these things, because: why bother? But Eoin, being the Patron Saint of Birthdays, says "I brought these gloves - they really help with the jarring, as well the cold." I stared at him blankly and nodded, thinking, yeah, smart thinking Eoin, but then he handed them to me and it was a kindness and generosity I will actually never in my lifetime forget. I feebly said "but what about you?" and he just pfft-ed like being cold and in pain was for wimps.

Within the next few kilometres Eoin pauses again and says "umm, I'm a bit worried ... I hope I have enough gas." He doesn't sound especially worried; his tone of voice betrays nothing except a minor inconvenience. I look over to see his fuel-gauge and see the needle hovering directly over empty: "oh!" I say in mock relief "the light isn't even on Eoin, don't be stupid, we'll be fine." I will myself to believe my own words.

The rest of the road we bump along mostly in silence, with occasional words of encouragement and a stop every 7km to pat ourselves on the back. At one point a dog snarls at me from the darkness and begins to chase me. At another, three men wrapped in blankets stand on a hill-top and shine torches down on us. At the worst moment, I pass and greet an old man who looks directly into my face and snarls "Malae" (foreigner). Apart from seeming like a bad cliché from some 'Heart of Darkness' trope, it was terrifying to think we were alone, in the dark, running low of gas, on a ridiculously dangerous road - and the locals (the one I'd met) did not like us.

Sunrise from Not the Top of Ramelau

Finally. Finally finally finally we arrive in Hatubuiliko and find the long-suffering hotel manager, who has been calling my phone every thirty minutes wondering where on earth we are (since no one in their right mind drives this road at night). We sit in a bleak, empty dining room drinking hot tea and shaking, from nerves, from cold, from pure, unadulterated relief. The next step is waking up at 3am to climb this damn mountain, but, at this point, that seems like the easy part.

It isn't the 'easy' part, but it is easier. We dutifully wake up at 3am and spend the good part of 45 minutes looking for and then waking our reluctant guide - a sulky, teenage boy. The walk up the mountain was hard for me, owing to my low fitness, but it wouldn't be too hard for most people and it wasn't as hard at the mountain I climbed in Sikkim last year. I was fed an orange at a crucial juncture and did, despite myself, make it to the top, where we ate treats and drank in the crumpled landscape.

Hatubuiliko village

The way back was a great deal easier because it was done in daylight and we had more time to do it. We stayed the night in Maubisse at a rather ramshackle (but lovely) eco-tourism project, where the food was exceptional, the beds were hard and the views were outrageous. The anxious manager told us that other locals nearby "might be funny," evidence of which you can see above.

There's a dip in the hills between Maubisse and Dili which goes through these rice fields and I've got to say, landscape wise, this is my favourite part. I've obviously spent too long in Vietnam (and Southeast Asia in general) because rice fields have become such a radiant and specific vision of beauty, while also giving me a kind of comfort. I was almost surprised to see them here, because the rest of the landscape is so arid. I wrote, years ago, when I was in New Zealand and missing stupid Vietnam (the first time I missed it) that I sometimes just miss that specific green - it's almost like a glow-in-the-dark green (especially after the rains). It's the kind of nonsense that makes me believe in colour therapy.

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